Book writing: how to really get going (and stay going)

I am writing a book. I have mentioned this before, in a few posts, but it is really happening now. A contract has been signed. A delivery date for the manuscript has been diarised. A book must now be written. Well. But, I am finding that proposing a book, and writing a book, are two different things. How, on earth, do I get properly going?

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I should say that I have actually started writing. I have written a full draft of one of the substantive chapters (i.e., not the Intro or Conclusion). I have more than half of a draft of a second chapter, and detailed holding texts on three more. There are seven chapters in total. So, I have started. But, I don’t really feel like I have gotten properly going and herein lies my current struggle. I have started writing this thing, and yet I am stuck at the moment in terms of moving forward.

I have worked out, for the moment, that what has happened is I have misplaced my overall argument. This is, sadly, not a new experience. It happens with many papers I work on, and I remember it happening during my PhD. I can’t see the thread, right now, as I delve into these chapters. It’s there, but I am struggling to trust it. I get into the chapter, and the chapter’s own argument, and then I tell someone about what I am writing, and they ask me questions, and I think: ‘Oh my god, everything I have is wrong and crap!’, and then I stress eat, and I am stuck.

Now, I have done enough writing, and had enough time with feedback, and revisions, to actually know that most of what I write is not all wrong and crap. It always needs revisions, of course, but I generally am able to make arguments that make sense. So, I can do this, right? [Yes]. But, what I can see from where I sit now, is that this sense of panic, and insecurity, and stuck-ness, is not something that actually goes away the more you write. I think you probably get much better at handling it all the more you write, but you are always going to have to deal with it. Because every argument you make is new, and demanding, and requires a great deal of drafting, and thinking, and reading, and rewriting, and being brave enough to ask for, and deal with, feedback.

Understanding this cognitively, though, and then actually confronting the panic, and fear, and lack of faith in my writing right now are two different things. I can totally rationalise my stuck-ness and slow momentum. But, I still wake up every day and work all day on everything except my book. I have no real insight into why I do this [this is part of the focus of a new research project I want to get going on soon]. But, I hope that acknowledging this struggle is a step towards pushing myself out of this funk and into writing. One pomodoro. Maybe two. Maybe a blocked out morning, with coffee and a sunny patch of my table, and some decent words written down. Setting a deadline with a critical friend that spurs me to have something to send him. These steps are all any of us can do, as writers, to get going, and keep going.

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I think we have to realise the writing – getting going and keeping going, especially on a big project like a thesis or a book – is work for the head and the body and heart. By this, I don’t mean only the physical strength you need to spend hours typing and reading without getting all sorts of aches and pains. I really mean the emotional strength you need to face your fears of not writing anything good, or of the negative feedback you feel sure will come if you hand any of your writing to someone to read, or of not actually even getting the thing finished and letting everyone down. These are all normal fears, for PhD students, researcher, authors of many kinds. We have to work to see them, acknowledge them, and then face them down as we just keep writing, word by word, sentence by sentence, page by page, until we can connect head and heart and know that, although it’s always hard work, our writing is okay. Better, even. And that there is an audience out there waiting to read it, who will see that there is an argument, and it makes sense, and is useful, critical, novel.

Back to work, then… More on book writing as I keep going :-).

Reading: pointing yourself in the right direction(s)

As a supervisor now, I am tasked with helping the students who are just starting out to find a way into their field, through reading (and keeping a reading journal). As a researcher and writer, I also have to work out, when I start a new paper or new project, where and how to start reading my way into the debates, problems, questions and so on. A key question I am often asked by students, and that I have to ask myself as a reader, is: ‘How do I maximise the use of my reading limited time?

The truth is, as much as we can say that as postgraduate and postdoctoral scholars we understand the demands of research, and how much time reading, thinking and writing takes at this level, we have busy lives. Most PhD students globally at part-time scholars, even if they are registered full-time, because they have jobs, and families, and other responsibilities that pull them away from their research. So, let’s be pragmatic. If you only have maybe 4-5 hours a week to really focus on your research, you want to make the best use of them. You don’t feel like you have time to spend two of these precious hours reading papers that ultimately are going on the ‘discard’ pile.

We can argue that no reading, or knowledge-gain, is a waste, but we also have to acknowledge that a PhD, or a research project, has a beginning, middle and end, and an end is expected in the form of a completed dissertation and papers (and in my case now, a book). So we need practical plans, to maximise this reading time in relation to the research project we are doing.

Last week I wrote about choosing 10 papers, and then 10 more and so on. But how do you know which 10 to start with, and then where to go after that? A PhD or Masters by research is not like a typical coursework assignment, where you have set questions that you need to respond to, and where you often have a reading list to get you started in the right directions (and can then just add to). At PhD level especially, and afterwards, you have to generate your own reading list, and your own questions. You need to choose the research problem, and read your way into the parts of the field that will help you refine this into a viable research question that you can research, thereby extending knowledge (and maybe also practice) in your field.

Big ask, right? Yep, it is. And it is daunting when you are new to this kind of research, thinking, writing and also researcher-independence. I have a few thoughts here that may help if you are starting a project, and are stuck in this very place: reading but struggling, and wondering if you are reading the right things, or not.

The first thought goes to the issue of research problems and questions. In your research journal, set yourself a 7 minute free-write task (where you literally just scribble whatever you are thinking of for 7 minutes). Make the topic: what I really want to research and why. Then write. See what you come up with. Say, for argument’s sake, you want to research the role of emotions and emotional ‘blocks’ in doctoral study. You think this is important because we don’t know a lot about this issue, but it seems to come up in many conversations you have had about and with PhD students and their studies. You want to know what students and supervisors think ’emotions’ look like in doctoral study, and what role they play in helping or hindering student progress and success.

So, there’s a basic research problem or topic. But, this is kind of all you know right now. Lots of suppositions and anecdotal sorts of evidence. You have to move beyond this to research-informed evidence, and knowledge. You have to read – a lot – to find your way into a deeper understanding of this problem, and also where the gaps are in the field that you can research. But what should your first 10 articles or papers focus on?

To get started, generate a few ‘research questions’ from your freewriting. In this case, maybe:

  1. What research has been done with the word ’emotion’ or some variation of that in the title, abstract or keywords?
  2. Based on this existing research, what are the key issues that are raised – maybe gender, or identity, or issues of retention and throughput?

This is enough to get started on some searching and journalling. The first question should yield at least 8-10 papers you can read and make notes on. Then, the second question can help you drill down further – widen your search to include studies on gender in doctoral study, and also identity. Look at papers that speak to these issues from supervisor and student perspectives. This should yield your next 10 papers, probably more.

Then you can start asking more refined and better questions, because you will now have a decent amount of knowledge about the basics of this field. You can start expanding your reading into more focused areas, or you may find yourself needing more knowledge on the wider context – you may find yourself asking: ‘Why are there so many PhD students out there? Why is there so much research on certain aspects of supervision practice, and not on others? Why is this research mostly coming out of contexts in the global North/South and not really elsewhere?’ These questions can point you towards more, and diverse reading that can help you start to build the layers of your study, from wider context, to more focused research problem area, to specific research questions and focus of your study.

A second thought goes to how to mitigate against getting stuck, and freaked out by all the reading. When you are starting out in a new research project, especially a high-stakes one such as a PhD or Masters project that will result in loss of status, time, money etc if you don’t complete or pass, self-doubt can be a significant stumbling block to watch out for. Even if you have been a successful student or academic so far, starting especially a PhD can create huge self-doubt – around whether your research is even original or interesting, around whether you can even write 80000 words about this topic, about whether you will please or disappoint your supervisor, about whether you are doing the right kinds of things at the right time, about whether you are working fast enough. So many things can create spaces for you to stumble in your self-belief.

One way, in reading, to help you manage this, is to start somewhere familiar. If you already know a bit about curriculum research, because of a workshop you attended, or a course you have taken, and this work is relevant to your research project, start there. Read your way in from a place of existing knowledge, moving towards new areas of learning. This will boost your self-confidence, and enable you to start writing as well, because you will have a bit of a background framework for this reading. Starting here can help you begin to ask the questions that will lead you into new reading on related aspects of the project. It will also lead you into reading on theory and methodology that will be useful to framing and designing your study and analysis. My advice: never start your reading with theory. It’s too difficult, and abstract on its own. You need to know what you want the theory for before you start reading theoretical texts. So start somewhere that feels known, and slowly branch out towards the not known. Same with methodology and research design texts.

Reading is the toughest part of any research project or activity, mainly because it is the part we never seem to make enough time for. I know I often feel indulgent spending time reading, even though my brain is saying: ‘But how are you ever going to write anything unless you do this?’ Writing has a tangible output – a text. Reading doesn’t have a direct output as such – although obviously the output in the end is your writing, and your more knowledgeable and confident contributions to your research or scholarly community. If you are battling to get started, or work out where to go next, I hope these two ideas here will help. Happy reading!

Reading: hard to teach, hard to do

Reading. One of the most important, but often most invisible, activities academics and scholars have to engage in to actually be academic, and scholarly. As a postgraduate student – honours, master, PhD especially – you will know that reading is a big part of your weekly workload, especially in the first part of your study, when you have to become familiar enough with your field of research to see, and understand, gaps into which your research could fit. But reading is often not something we help students with very much, beyond pointing them in the direction of papers and books to read.

The actual act and process of learning and making knowledge through reading is not an easy thing to talk about in supervision or teaching. It is much easier to talk about the other side of reading, which is writing. We have A LOT of research and blogging and talking about writing. Writing is visible, a tangible act that results in words on pages leading to books, theses and papers. We can see, analyse, unpack, critique the act of writing. But, without reading, what would there be to write about?

The first thing to think about, with reading at this level, is time. Reading takes time – more time than we often plan and estimate for in our weekly work budget. Some of us are slower readers than others, and some things are harder to read, make sense of, and make notes about than others. For example, reading an applied paper about some aspect of your study, where the authors are reporting on their own empirical research, with light theory and a focus on findings and outcomes is usually much quicker and easier to read than a chapter of a book on theory, where the author is a theorist, writing in typically dense and complex terms about abstracted meanings, terms and examples. Theory reading, as I think of it, always takes longer – and is more difficult cognitively – than applied reading. A useful point to consider then, is budgeting time for reading differently.

At the start of a project – masters, PhD, research more generally – you are going to have to read a great deal. Hours and hours of reading. The average amount of reading time to enable to the writing of a doctoral proposal, and the early chapters of a thesis is at least 6-9 months. Yes, months. Without all the reading, and the knowledge you will gain from it, you will find yourself with thin writing. One thing students early in a research journey do well is ‘suppositions’ – ‘(I suppose) it could be that students are not voting because they think it is not cool, or (I suppose) it could be because they do not identify with political parties on the ballot’. Which is it? Neither, both, or some other reason? Researchers before you have done some work on this, and published it. You have to read that work to understand the key debates and issues that have already been researched as regards youth voting, to help you see how your field has been approaching this research, and to help you find an under-explored area of knowledge-making within which you can locate your project.

So where are you going to make this time to read, and think, and also write as you make notes and start to pull threads from the readings together into the context of your own research project? Perhaps try a reading every morning, with notes in your reading journal, just after the kids have left for school and before work starts, or as you get to your desk before the day gets busy. If you can rise really early, perhaps try an hour before the household wakes up, when you have quiet. The point is to choose a time of day, and a quiet space, that works for you, and protect that time, at least 4 days a week, if not more. Steady work, and progress, is the goal with reading, and with writing.

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Now that you are reading as regularly as you can, and starting to learn more about the relevant issues, debates, theories and so on related to your project, you need to start talking about it all. Check in weekly (or biweekly if that’s easier) with a peer, colleague or friend also working on research (in or outside of your field). Have coffee and chat about what you have been reading, and why, and what kinds of interesting or troubling knowledge you have made. Ask your supervisor if you can check in with them, perhaps monthly if you cannot do so more often – write a short email to indicate what you have been reading, and where you are in your study. This may help them to see areas where you need to be redirected, or guided, in your reading, and they can help you to plot a course more steadily through the field. As a supervisor myself, I would rather have more contact like this with my students, to minimise their feelings of overwhelm and lost-ness, and to see how their thinking is developing, so we can both keep the project on track.

Reading is such a solitary activity – more so than writing because you can receive feedback on writing but no so much directly on reading. This is why it is hard to really ‘teach’ students how to read. You just have to do it. You have to wade in, and feel a bit (or a lot) lost at first, but, as a little blue fish says, just keep swimming. The act of creating new knowledge out of a mix of what is known and what you are able to generate, learn or discover on your own, is difficult, and it takes enormous amounts of time and effort. It is thus important to find ways to make this part of your research work less solitary – through writing about your own research problem, linking in knowledge from your reading and asking for feedback and guidance; through meeting regularly to just talk out loud about your developing thinking and knowledge; through journalling and writing to yourself about your research.

Reading, the act of processing what is known in relation to what you want to find out, and creating different kinds of necessary frameworks for your own research, is a significant, and vital, part of research. And there is so much to read – how do you find it all, and when do you know you have read enough? My advice is to start small: instead of falling into a Google Scholar rabbit hole and downloading 100 papers, download 10. 10 papers that, from their titles, abstracts and keywords, are obviously relevant to your study. Make these applied papers, rather than theory, to start with. Read these 10, and make good notes. Have a coffee chat and send your supervisor an email. Then find another 10, building on the first 10. Use the reference lists for guidance. Start noting repetition – are you seeing the same ideas and names coming up? Is this part of the field pretty clear in your head, in relation to your study, or not quite yet? If it is, move on to new reading on a related area of study; if not, keep going until it is. 10 by 10 (or perhaps 5 by 5 for Masters). Build up from this base, and then start branching out. After 20-25 papers, you should be seeing the same kinds of theoretical tools popping up – you could now start reading more in these areas, to find the right theory for your project; or perhaps you need to branch into research design issues, and start reading there. The point is to tackle the reading step by step, and share the steps you are taking with others – peers, co-travellers on the research journey, supervisors.

Reading is a tough thing to do – it takes time, it can be meandering, it can confuse you and challenge your ideas about your research. But it is perhaps the most vital part of doing research. If you are a student, try to start being more proactive and strategic about making time to read, and journal about your reading. If you are a supervisor, have a conversation with your student not only about what they are reading, but about how they read, and when, and what issues they may be having. Offer guidance if you can, or resources they can use. Making reading a more visible part of research may help us to really appreciate not just its significance, but also the labour involved. Making reading more visible, and appreciated, may help students, and supervisors, to connect reading and writing more meaningfully and overtly, within the overall work of creating new, and valuable, knowledge in our respective fields.

Why do you want to do a PhD?

I have been thinking recently about why we undertake doctoral research at all. I’ve been reading applications to the PhD programme I am working in, and have also had a request to possibly co-supervise the project of a new colleague who will retire in 3 years’ time and really wants to finally start her doctorate. If you consider that one of the most talked-about reasons for doing a doctorate is to earn a title, and the professional status and opportunities that come with that (grants, promotion, etc), you might wonder why she has waited so long, and what possible career benefits she could derive from it so close to the formal end of her career. This has got me thinking about the reasons for undertaking doctoral study, and the payoffs for those who do.

Reason 1: Career progression, professional status, promotion

Reason 1 is the most obvious and perhaps also most commonsense reason for choosing to undertake a doctorate. In South Africa, not unlike just about every higher education context globally, holding a PhD is a signal to peers and managers that you can both conduct and supervise research. Given the drive across Africa and other parts of the global North and South to increase the numbers of PhD graduates (linked to economic growth), it follows that we need more PhDs to supervise all these students’ and their research.

Of course, then, you would undertake a doctorate because are already working in a university – public or private – and need to climb the career ladder. Promotion, research funding, support to attend conferences, professional status, and the ability to supervise students – all of this is made more possible when you hold your own PhD degree.

This reason is linked to Reason 2, which is that you need to hold, or be working on, a PhD if you want to enter academia and get a university job, whether you are coming in from being a student, or coming from industry or a profession to teach. Someone said to me years ago that, in academia, the Masters is like your school leaving certification, now, and the doctorate is your university degree – hard to do very much without one. She was right. If you read any job advert for an academic lecturing post, or research post, in any university context that posts ads in Times Higher Education, or similar spaces, you will see that a minimum requirement is having or being actively registered for a doctorate. Unless one is not required for the role (an MA or MPhil are enough), you have to be on the PhD track to apply.

Further, for more senior roles, you have to be published. Now, you don’t have to have a PhD to do research, and write papers, but the learning and engagement in reading, methodology, data analysis and so on that takes place over the course or researching and writing a doctoral dissertation does stand you in stronger stead for doing further research and writing work postdoctorally (and helping others to do this by collaborating with them)

But this cannot be all there is to it, right? This mainly extrinsic motivation, underpinned by ideas of higher education as a private good, and neoliberal notions of individualised success and progress, doesn’t fully get to why and how doing and having a PhD can be transformative beyond the self – for one’s academic and personal, and also wider community

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Reason 3: Doctoral study as transformation – of self in relation to others

I have written a fair bit here over the past 4 years about all the different things I have learned about myself as a researcher and writer from doing a PhD. Liz Harrison also wrote an excellent book on the transformation of identity and self that comes with doing a PhD (and there is a fair bit of this research out there if you want to read it). The PhD is the only degree you earn that changes your name – you get a title that you keep, regardless of whether your job changes, or you leave academia even. This is a significant change for many graduates, mainly because of what it signals: a new kind of scholarly self that can do, and design and supervise research, that can contribute to large and small debates within and beyond the university, that can publish research and contribute to scholarship in relatively influential ways. It’s a big deal.

But for me, the real nature of this big deal – the intrinsic motivation that I think must drive scholars like my colleagues and friends who have all undertaken doctorate very late in their formal careers – has become clear only quite recently. In a nutshell, it’s about who I can be to others, as a peer, collaborator, mentor. It’s about the roles I can play in my scholarly community. It’s about the role model I can be to my boys, of a working mother who is more than just their mum; who is a person, thinker, writer, actor in her own right. It’s about the range of contributions I can make – as a critical friend, as a co-supervisor and co-researcher, as a cheerleader and peer, and as a teacher.

The doctorate should be transformative, personally and professionally. It should not just be a qualification that you obtain to get a job, or climb the academic or professional ladder you are perched on. If we are serious about expanding postgraduate education at this level, and making the doctorate a signal of excellence in research development and “output” in our university contexts, then we need to be talking to prospective and current PhD students more openly about the intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. I contend that you must have both for this thing we call ‘the PhD’ to be really meaningful, to the student and to the student’s scholarly and perhaps also wider personal and professional communities.

Having these conversations, and creating space in doctoral education spaces to encourage and promote student growth, learning and development in gaining a qualification and more consciously cultivating a wider set of motivations and gains, would be an important step in ensuring that postgraduate education is both a private, and public, good. And this is good for all of us, regardless of when we start the PhD, and why.

Becoming, being, and change: reflecting on early career (and what comes next)

I’ve been trying to write this post for a while, and I can’t quite get what is in my head onto this page in quite the right way. What I want to do is something a little indulgent, and reflect on my experiences, over the last 5 years, of becoming and being an ‘early career researcher’. I am a couple of weeks away from no longer officially being one, according to my country’s National Research Foundation, and some of the literature out there*, and I am pondering what is next, and whether I am quite ready.

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If you take 5 years as the ECR period – the guideline I am using – then my time is almost up. On the 10th of April, it will be five years since I graduated with my doctorate. This is giving me pause.

There is a certain amount of mental and emotional ‘space’ that comes with early career. People expect you to publish, but not to churn out top quality papers that make a huge impact in your field. You are joining, rather than steering, the conversations in your field. You’re learning how to publish, and conference, and engage as a peer in your field. People expect you to teach, and consciously grow as a scholar, but if you are not yet settled, it’s not really a big problem – yet. ‘Early career’ seems to offer a bit of space to hang back, and observe, and then choose your doing with help from mentors – perhaps a supervisor, or more senior academic peer – alongside you. And the doing can be halting, and uncertain at first and no one will get too het-up about it.

As I move towards the next phase – I assume ‘mid-career’ – I am starting to supervise my own students, and I am starting to apply for grants to run my own research projects. Thus far, I have been supervised and mentored, and joined projects others have won funding for. Moving from being mentored to being a mentor to others is one significant change from early to mid-career. I am now asked to be responsible for parts of others’ research journeys, and this is daunting. It means you have to know stuff – what to read, what networks to join, which are the good conferences to attend, what areas of study are novel – and be able to do stuff – offer feedback and advice on writing and thinking work, co-write grant applications, co-publish with students and peers more often. There are more things, I am sure, but these are the ones I can think of now (that are pressing on me, anyway). Less time to observe, and hang back, and see what happens.

Moving into a more ‘mid’ phase of my career now, I feel like the biggest shift is the one from becoming, to being (and a new trajectory of becoming). I have become a researcher, and now I have to really be one. I have become a doctor, and now I have to help others to achieve the same goal through being a supervisor. I have become a decent writer, and now I have to really be a published author. And this is what I signed up for, and actually I enjoy all of the work, but what is making an impression on me is that time is taking on a different dimension. My career is starting to really grow now, and things feel like they’re speeding up a bit. Citations are becoming a thing, and making my research more visible. There is pressure to publish a few papers a year, and I am writing a book. I feel I need to be thinking about other avenues for sharing my research with wider audiences, such as in newspapers or The Conversation. I need to really start thinking about wider forms of service to my scholarly community, such as serving on editorial boards, reviewing papers, examining dissertations and so on. I now have enough distance and time from my own doctorate to be able to offer these services, and do a relatively good job.

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I am struggling to sum this all up – probably because the becoming is ongoing really. I am still becoming a scholar, and mentor, and supervisor, and researcher, and critical peer, yet many of these roles are offered now because I am seen as being further along the path in terms of knowledge, experience and ability. I have climbed a few key staircases or ladders, and have the capacity to keep climbing, choosing which staircases to climb, and who to bring with me. I have different choices ahead of me: new research projects and related networks, different kinds of writing, teaching and travel opportunities, different ways of being an ‘academic scholar’ and playing this particular game.

Although there is less time for hanging back, there are new kinds of freedom: I have seen more of how the ‘game’ of academia works, and with that knowledge, I can make better choices about how I want to play it in this next career phase. I can see better some of the push and pull factors that I was blind to 5 or more years ago. Although I’d like a bit more time to be ‘early career’, especially to indulge in the mental allowances I have given myself to hang back at times, and be a participant guided by others but not a leader and guide, I can’t stay here forever.

I will, of course, always have mentors of different kinds as I go, and leaders are also participants, and time can be manipulated to suit your own life, and personality and pace. The becoming never becomes a static form of being – being is a just a landing on a much longer staircase of becoming. So, I suppose I am on a new landing, looking up at a new set of stairs, familiar and also strange. Now, I just have to find the strength, and courage, to start the climb.

*Literature from Australia and the UK defines early career as five year post-the end of a PhD degree. In the US, early career is a little longer, perhaps 7 years and tends to incorporate the end of the PhD process. In Africa, early career often includes all or part of the PhD, and therefore can extend to a period of 7-10 years. So, there are different time-periods and also definitions of what needs to fill up this time to move a researcher from early into mid-career.